jerseyworks review

Charles Fishman's COUNTRY OF MEMORY

     The best thing that can happen in a poem is when poetry finds the poet, lands on the poet's head, so to speak. In Charles Fishman's Country of Memory, there are many instances when the work becomes quite perfect, when the writer's quest to make poetry of his life is overtaken by the clarity of poetry itself. This is not to say, however, that the heart of the book, the poet's sustained effort to find and create meaning, is not rewarding, for it is. Country of Memory is what its title suggests; it is a book of personal verse that moves through the poet's childhood, adolescence, the life and death of his parents, his marriage and his travels, and finally toward his attempts to find spiritual and human understanding.

     To write such a book is not easy, it is an undertaking full of pitfalls; yet Fishman makes a noble endeavor of it and in the process gives the reader a memorable collection, lasting images, and more than a few lines that cause one to stop and savor their depth. In "Paul Granger's Wound," for example, when that bloody hand comes out of the water, all of a sudden the poem is much more than one expected, a single image contains the end of innocence and more, it contains our shared consciousness and history. For one of Fishman's generation, that shared memory comprises the beginnings of rock and roll, the assassinations and wars, and the myriad individual attempts to keep our lives on any sort of coherent track. One might wish, or even demand, that a poet looking for identity in the second half of the 20th century would spend utmost effort to locate himself or herself in the political and social landscape; Country of Memory touches this base only briefly, though it does so clearly in a few instances. "Wheeler Avenue," for example, describes a racially motivated shooting and ends with the italicized words, "I am a man, and this is where I belong." Fishman's poetry remains focused on the personal and universal, on the fears and physical injuries of childhood, on aging and separation, the difficulties of loving, and on spiritual understanding. Fishman is particularly good at showing how things sneak up on us, happen before we have perspective on them, as in "Through the Ice, 1953," in which a friend on a sled falls "into that gaping hole in the universe." In the same poem, Fishman describes a January sunset: "…each slight hint of darkening a tick / on the clock of childhood," and the reader senses the future waiting beyond awareness.

     In "Learning to Swim," the child confronts fear of drowning and, "It all comes back-- / how I fought the water, smacking it with my fists, / as if the inlet had a face…" Again without warning, an image takes us beyond the facts of the poem and deftly nails down a common battle against the nameless. The image of drowning is repeated thematically, and Country of Memory is on one level a story of simply trying to keep one's head above water; it concludes by reaching for the moon and stars. In the penultimate poem, "Natural Selection," the poet, "calmed by approaching darkness," imagines himself swaying "in the current / off the Farallon Islands, a new species: remote, / unrepentant, mysterious, blossoming." The wish to move beyond earth is always balanced by the idea of darkness as a source of strength and beauty. In "Andros Night," the poet wants to "drift between the worlds"; in "The Light at Ligourio," though, "white armfuls of stars gather, / as on a vine that stems from the source of darkness and delight."

     In the middle of the book, there are some finely-achieved portraits of the writer's parents. Possibly the best of these is "My Father on a Sled Smoking," in which Fishman simply admonishes his father to quit smoking and thus live, as it turns out that he does, to an old age: "Pitch the fresh pack / hidden in your jacket into the glitter of ice…" One of the surest feelings and clearest images in the collection is of the poet's wife, which appears in "Slowly Homeward." He is riding in the back seat of a car on a Thanksgiving evening, behind his mother and father and wife: "I watch their heads: / the gray and thinning hair; the dyed hair, / carrot bright; and the soft fur cap that hugs / the mind I trust above the ties of blood." This trust beyond blood ties Fishman strongly and recognizably to the experience of his generation.

     Country of Memory sustains a clean, steady rhythm and accomplishes its goals with always accessible lines. It is composed largely in the traditional poetic idiom, and one wished at times for a new language to be cast upon the work, befitting the poet's own wish for "a bouquet / of nouns and verbs to fill me, a garden of adjectives." Though it is fruitless to wish that one thing be another, one might have wished for a book that takes a razor to our contemporary moment. Most often, though, Country of Memory is crystal clear and striking, and these criticisms by no means discount the pleasure of a true and honest poetic achievement.